When I was 15, I first read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. At the time I was amused by the snarky humor and tone. Recently I reread the first book of the series and while I found myself disenchanted by the writing, I was intrigued by a particular entry.
Spoilers Included. One of the themes of The Hitchhiker Books is the understanding of Life, The Universe, and Everything. A species in an alternate dimension develop a computer, ‘Deep Thought’, to uncover the answer to the ultimate question. The following is an excerpt between the computer and scientists as the answer is revealed.
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” – Deep Thought
“But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” – Scientists
Now what is interesting about this quote is when I first read the books I wasn’t involved in UX. I wasn’t even aware of UX as a field. Rereading this passage I immediately identify with the sentiment, to the processes I explore, and to the conversations I have with clients.
When addressing client engagements, we often come up with solutions before fully understanding the problem space. Even the best of us have preconceived notions on what a solution could be as we enter discovery. We rely on previous work, influence from clients or ‘best in breed’ examples and we tarnish our clean slate with these assumptions.
This passage from the book is a good reminder that while we might have a solution in mind or think we understand a problem, it might be for the wrong reasons. Knowing the question – the problem – we are striving to solve for is critical in designing the appropriate solution. Otherwise we end up with elegant solutions for the wrong problem, or for a problem that doesn’t exist. After all, we can always ask “How many roads must a man walk down?”